How to divorce with dignity

When KATHERINE ORMEROD’s husband left her two weeks before her 30th birthday she was devastated, not least because she’d shared their ‘perfect’ romance online. She reveals how she coped with the fallout and the valuable lessons she learned along the way.

When it comes to ‘perfect’ relationships, social media has a lot to answer for. However cynical you might be, and even if you manage to avoid every Jennifer Aniston romcom at the cinema, it’s impossible to avoid the dream of happily-ever-after. When I got married seven years ago, I was pretty culpable when it came to projecting only the best of my relationship on my social media accounts. Not because I was consciously trying to manipulate what the outside world thought of me, but because I only shared pictures of happy moments.

Still, no one would have guessed that it wasn’t all roses, and I guess I was happy to perpetuate that idea. I was as shocked as anyone when my husband left me. With just the shirt on his back he was gone overnight and, apart from one brief meeting afterwards when I said goodbye to our dog, I never saw him again. After eight years of sharing a bed with your partner, a shock break-up is always going to send you a bit bonkers. When you’ve been married in front of all your friends, family and today’s broader social media network it’s a whole lot worse. I was – how can I put this? – stark-raving, off-the-chart deranged.

My ex and I split two weeks before my 30th birthday. When you Google ‘divorce before 30’ (obviously what any good millennial immediately does) countless news stories come up replete with stats emphasising the likelihood that your youthful ‘I dos’ will end in Splitsville. You can find pieces that offer, ‘You still have a chance’ (thanks, Elite Daily), advice blogs telling you that your divorce will be ‘one of the best experiences of your life’ (not true) and a few nicely written anecdotal accounts (The Huffington Post has a heartfelt series). But there’s no user’s guide to surviving the trauma or how to keep it together when you feel your whole life is falling apart, and little acknowledgement of the deep, gnawing shame that comes with having a failed marriage so young.

 

After my husband left I spent a few days trying to work out how I could change myself so that he would want me again, then everything became a haze. I was adamant that I had to ‘keep it together’, so I took just one day off work. I stopped sleeping almost entirely. A few memories of that time remain vivid: my miserable birthday dinner where everything tasted of cardboard, the first Christmas without him – my family distraught to see me in such a state – and the amazing, incredible support that my colleagues offered me.

 

I would say that the first thing I learned is that you should give yourself a little break. Take some holiday days, stay with your parents, go to a place where you feel safe. But don’t fall into the trap of letting your life unhinge. While taking time out is important, work is a useful distraction and it will always provide you with an escape from your inner turmoil. It was most definitely the ship that sailed me through to the other side. If your job is to write and your brain is fit to burst with thoughts and emotions, it is, however, pretty tough to get the clarity you need to put a sentence together. When you haven’t slept properly for months, it’s almost impossible. I was senior fashion features editor at Grazia at the time, and while we all have gripes about our job, I will never have anything but love for my colleagues who scooped me up.

Because we wrote every week about make-ups and break-ups, they had the concept of a ‘starter marriage’ – a short-lived union that is a trial run before you discover the real love of your life – ready-made for me, with countless (celebrity) examples of how things were going to be just fine. The relentless workload and my colleagues’ kindness in not taking me to task over my sloppy copy helped me get through the days.

 

My experience at work made me realise how important it is to share the struggle with colleagues as well as friends and family. Of course, not all workplaces are warm and cosy and you might find that your boss is unsympathetic or that you’re the subject of gossip. If this is the case you probably need to get a new job as soon as you’re back on your feet. This isn’t something you can keep inside. If you try to do that you will find your journey back to normality far more arduous.

 

As well as the challenge of trying to hold it together at work, there was the social media element to contend with. I had more than 1,000 images of my ex-husband on my Facebook profile and they tortured me for months. Whenever I was travelling, or awake at night, I would look through them in a manic, masochistic binge. The wedding shots obviously cut deep, but the most painful were the early-day unglamorous shots – the pictures of us falling in love. After a couple of months of mooning, I took charge and deleted every image of him and, yes, it took hours.

Also, when I packed up his stuff, I sent off every photograph of us, every keepsake, every love note, retaining only one slightly blurry shot of me in my wedding dress. I donated the gown and veil to charity (I kept my gold Jimmy Choos, obviously) and wiped the flat clear of anything else that would remind me of him. When you’re trying to keep your dignity (which really means avoiding dissolving into hysterics) it’s important to be brutal. Some people have asked if I wish I’d kept some of those mementos and I resolutely say no. It’s hard enough when your memories are assaulting you mentally every hour of the day; no one needs a physical cue to add to the pain.

 

One thing I really appreciated was that my colleagues didn’t treat the situation as taboo. If you ever find yourself in the midst of a divorce, you will realise how traditional many people are. Male friends told me that it was fine because I was still young and attractive and I should just not tell any new guys that I’d been married. In fact, a lot of people told me to keep it a secret. Other friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t run after my ex and force him to go through marriage counselling. They told me I’d given up too easily. Mutual friends quickly disappeared. Heartbreak is hard to watch at the best of times, but when it’s a young couple so full of promise it can be awkward to know what to say, so you inevitably lose a lot of faces from your life.

 

My rock bottom was spent in The Bowery Hotel during New York Fashion Week in February 2014. I was lonely, in terrible debt, terrified of the logistics of my divorce and, having burnt my face with my hair-straighteners, had five shiny blisters on my cheek. During Fashion Week!

I wasn’t sleeping properly and had a heavy workload of 2am deadlines and 5am wake-up calls. After the first show of the season, I left my mobile in the back of a yellow cab with no receipt or record of the driver. I had no cash on me and an ATM soon told me that my bank had blocked my card for ‘fraudulent behaviour’. It was minus 15 degrees and I had to walk from the Lincoln Centre to The Bowery (about an hour and a half) in three-inch boots.

 

Ever had that feeling that the world is truly against you? This was my nadir. As I entered the hotel lobby I spotted Beth, a PR based in LA who I’d become friendly with via WhatsApp over the preceding months. She sat me down, ordered me a glass of merlot, rustled me up a second-hand phone so that I could at least call and text people, and dealt with everything from my transport situation to editing down my schedule to what I really needed to do next.

 

After that, she ordered pizza and sat and listened to me. She gave me antiseptic balm for my blisters then sent me to bed. I can’t thank her enough for her kindness – I’d never had a friend look after me like that before. It’s worth noting that while the main man might walk out of your life, a new friend, mentor or colleague could walk in to take their place. Beth is now at the centre of my life and I couldn’t imagine a day without speaking to her. Even though she lives 5,000 miles away, we try to meet once a month. She may not be a new husband, but she is certainly one of the loves of my life and I only found her because of what I was going through.

 

Of course, not everyone is going to be a shining knight – some people will make you feel terrible. Old friends might be useless and selfish. Other acquaintances and industry peers may be cruel. These are some of the cons you have to deal with. On the plus side, the process is an incredible litmus test of people’s fitness to be in your life. Looking back, the aftermath of my break-up was like an organic cull, and I was well rid of most of the people who ducked out. For example, those ‘bad-weather’ friends. As children we’re brought up to believe that real friends are the ones who stick around throughout the hard times, but I discovered that some people seem to thrive on seeing you knocked down. When you start to pick yourself back up, they can’t cope and spend every interaction trying to inflict some kind of jellyfish barb. Real friends are there for the bad times, but they are also your fiercest cheerleaders and as proud of your achievements as if they are their own. They want you to feel better and would do anything to help you get there.

 

By nature I do not like to burden people, so it was tricky to be in constant over-share mode. It felt as though I couldn’t stop myself from blurting it all out. The whole thing was so front-of-mind (and I guess I was in shock) that it was all I could talk about to strangers or acquaintances. But when it came to calling someone at 3am during those nights of desolation, I didn’t once pick up the phone. Everyone is different.

 

Some people can go into work as if nothing has happened, but then late-night call their friends for weeks. Either way, you have to accept that no one escapes unscathed and that you are probably going to say and do things that will make you cringe. Ultimately, if anyone judges you long-term on this kind of behaviour, they’re not meant to be in your life.

One of the key things to keep somewhere in your muddled mind is that you will come out on the other side. My other-side moment happened on my first trip to Los Angeles. It was just seven weeks after my break-up and I felt bleak. I was in town to interview two towering female names in international fashion, Diane von Furstenberg and Tory Burch, and both of them were incredibly inspiring.

 

Halfway through my interview with Diane, however, she stopped me and asked, ‘Is there something going on with you?’ While I thought I’d been hiding the black hole that had taken residence within my heart, it seems the subterfuge wasn’t enough to fool DVF. I ended up giving her a precis of my situation and in turn she gave me two pieces of advice that have stuck with me ever since and I hope she won’t mind me sharing here.

First she told me that, ‘the body has no memory for pain’, something which seems impossible to believe when you’re in the depths of despair, but is actually so accurate. Even as I write about that time, it’s as if it happened to some other person. I can’t completely connect to that pain; my body bears no physical scar. You have to hold on to the fact that the pain will pass and you will come back to yourself. Secondly she said to me, ‘It’s time to change the lenses in your glasses. You think he left you, but the truth is he set you free.’ She then told me to go off, meet a guy in Los Angeles and have fun, which I promptly did that night in Chateau Marmont. He was a Texan entrepreneur and it was short-lived, which was a surprise to no one. While it certainly didn’t cure me, that was probably the moment when the thaw began to set in and I managed to punch out the first brick of the wall between me and my future.

 

Everyone who’s going through what I did will have this moment, and while it might not be quite the same as mine and you might only realise it in retrospect, hold on to the knowledge that it will come.

Something else that helped immeasurably in keeping my act together was exercise. I wasn’t much of a gym-goer, but in the year of my split I’d started a reformer pilates class. Going there, making time for myself and doing something positive for my body became a massive anchor in my life. It remains the place that I go to to steady my thoughts.

 

Now, here is a piece of advice that I can’t stress enough: get your legal and financial position in order. Looking back, I wish someone had insisted that I did this because I was so intimidated by all the financial and legal aspects of divorce that I retreated, ostrich-like, thus leaving the ball in my ex-husband’s court.

In the UK the rules are pretty simple. You either decide to stay married for two years after your split then file for irreconcilable differences. Or one of you files against the other for the other party’s unreasonable behaviour. While now is not the place to go into detail, let’s just say that I shot myself in the foot by allowing fear to paralyse me. If you are young and have no experience of legal or financial systems (seven years of working in fashion had not exactly prepared me for anything like this) it is incredibly hard to know where to start. I didn’t know any lawyers and none of my peers had been through a divorce.

 

Through a recommendation I managed to find a Norfolk-based firm that provided empathetic but professional advice and were incredibly supportive throughout the whole process. They also offered better value than London-based solicitors. I did see a solicitor in London, who charged me £250 plus VAT for a consultation (something that the Law Society disapproves of), but I felt she was too aggressive and pushing me too hard to act. Ultimately she was right, but I just wasn’t ready.

The lesson I learned is that it does take some time to get this side of the ball rolling, but the quicker you do, the quicker you release yourself from anxiety and the sooner you protect yourself. Just do it and don’t end up in the position I found myself in. As an epilogue, while it sounds corny, today my life has never been better. Diane was right: my ex did set me free. If he hadn’t left I would have continued flogging the dead horse of our marriage even though I had made a mistake and was crushingly miserable.

 

Eventually, after those months of tailspin post-split, a feeling of lightness came over me and I never once felt the urge to call my ex or check out his social media – even during my subsequent dating experience, which was both horrific and hilarious. I was actually done, just as he was – it just took me longer to realise it.

 

Other bonuses of my break-up were that I whittled my friendship group down to the troupers, made some incredible new friends, got really fit and – as a consequence of going through the divorce process – developed the balls to quit my day job and launch my own business, which enabled me to earn enough to buy a flat in London and have a career that fulfils me. Nothing is perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better. All of these things were possible because I managed to mostly keep myself together.

I have now met someone new. While our road has not been straight and I was pretty unstable for a full year of our relationship, he is the net I can rely on to catch me from even the dodgiest landing (because he’s seen me at my worst, it’s only up from here). But I’m not sharing pictures of him on social media or making endless status updates of our adoration. Not only because I know what it feels like to read that stuff when you’re heartbroken and I don’t want to inflict that on anybody else, but also because I don’t need to. I know that we’re cool but I’m also OK with the idea that it might not be for ever.

While that might sound jaded, it isn’t the case. I’m still a hopeless romantic, but the prism through which I view couplehood is different now. You don’t know how you might change; you can try everything to make it work but you might fail. And there is no shame in that – it’s just how it’s meant to be.

 

Katherine runs an editorial consultancy helping fashion and beauty brands with their digital, social and print content. She launched her ‘anti-perfectionism’ website workworkwork.co to reveal the realities behind the gloss of social media and offer a forum where people can share their personal challenges.